Category Archives: UAVs

US NSF Funds Antarctic Science Drones

All around the world, Unoccupied Aircraft Systems (AKA, drones) are becoming useful scientific instruments. With the technological and economic push-pull of military and consumer demand, drones are becoming ubiquitous and cheap. Cheap enough for poverty stricken scientists to use.

Small drones have many advantages besides cost. They can carry cameras and other instruments to extend the view of science teams by many kilometers. They fly low, and can, indeed, touch down if needed.   With advances in control systems, it is becoming reasonable to operate flocks of them, to cover even more ground.

Many groups around the world are booting up this technology (E.g., reports by the US Marine Mammal Commission [2] and a coalition in New Zeeland [1]).

This week the US National Science Foundation announced funding of the Drones in Marine Science and Conservation lab at Duke University, which is specifically aimed at monitoring animals in Antarctica.

The advantages are obvious. Antarctica is huge, far away, and hard to get to. Satellites are blinded by cloud cover, and limited in resolution. Aircraft can only operate a few days per year, and are awfully expensive. Drones offer the advantages of aerial surveying at a reasonable cost.

As the video makes clear, the basic use is similar to civilian and military scouting, with the advantage that the penguins will neither shoot nor sue.  🙂

These drones are a bit more complicated than the toys under the Christmas tree, because they are equipped with a variety of instruments, potentially radar, lidar, multispectral cameras, and chemical samplers. As the NSF article points out, they “can even be used to sample breath from individual whales”.

The thrust of the NSF funding is to pull together all the rest of the picture, namely data analysis, visualization, and archiving the data. The project also contemplates training and other assistance to help future projects that want to employ drones.

This is pretty neat.

  1. Lorenzo Fiori, Ashray Doshi, Emmanuelle Martinez, Mark B. Orams, and Barbara Bollard-Breen, The Use of Unmanned Aerial Systems in Marine Mammal Research. Remote Sensing, 9 (6) 2017.
  2. Marine Mammal Commission, Development and Use of UASs by the National Marine Fisheries Service for Surveying Marine Mammals. Bethesda, 2016.


Robot Wednesday

The Omnicopter is Cool!

Yet another wonder robot from ETH in Zürich (e.g., see this and this):

The Omnicopter.


Not a quadcopter, it’s an octocopter!

The advantage of this design is that it is way, way more maneuverable than quadcopters, helicopters, or blimps. It has full 6DOF movement.

The principle was described in a paper last year [2] and a neat little video:

This year they produced a cool demonstration, playing fetch with the omnicopter.

This is pretty amazing!

The description of the demo indicates that it works by evaluating large numbers of possible trajectories to select optimal one from a given initial state to a final state. They say that the system can generate 500,000 trajectories per second, resulting is a smooth, magical effect.

(This is very much a “brute force” search through all possible trajectories—computers don’t have to be “smart” if they are fast!)

As Evan Ackerman comments, this design has a lot of potential to be better than the conventional approach of trying to put a robot arm on a quadcopter. “[Y]ou could just stick a gripper onto an arbitrary face of it, and then have the entire robot serve as an actuator.”

Nice work, all!

  1. Evan Ackerman, ETH Zurich’s Omnicopter Plays Fetch, in IEEE Spectrum – Automation. 2017.
  2. Dario Brescianini and Raffaello D’ Andrea. Design, modeling and control of an omni-directional aerial vehicle. In 2016 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), 2016, 3261-3266.


Robot Wednesday

Cool Multirotor Transformer

If there is anything we like more than Robots, it’s a Swarm of Robots (a self-assembling swarm is even better!).

Let’s face it. Individual drones are passé. Millions were sold as toys last year. This is hardly cutting edge. (I’m talking to you William Gibson and Cory Doctorow).

Multiple UAVs, working together is where it’s at now.  While there is a lot of cool cooperating robots coming out of Dot CH (Switzerland), we can be sure that Asia is in the game too.

This month at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Singapore. Moju Zhao and colleagues from U. Tokyo presented the latest developments in their “Transformable Multirotor with Multilinks” [2].

(They really need a catchy name for this device. A TMuMu? The Magic Mover?)

The basic idea is a reconfigurable group of simple rotors linked together. The group can transform into different shapes to do different things.

The canonical example is to form a compact circle for flight, unfold into a “U” shape to engulf a target, and then close around it to grasp the target and carry it away.

This is really cool!

It looks simple, but there is a lot of fiddly detail to get this to work: the tricky thing about a multipurpose aircraft is that there are so many possibilities that have to be simulated and controlled. Earlier papers explain some of the complicated details (e.g., [1]).

The recent paper and video shows that the TMuMu not only flies (which is amazing) but can pick up and deliver cargo, too.  They term this “whole body manipulation”, referring to the fact that the entire device works as the manipulator.

Very nice work!

  1. Moju Zhao, Koji Kawasaki, Kei Okada and Masayuki Inaba Transformable multirotor with two-dimensional multilinks: modeling, control, and motion planning for aerial transformation. Advanced Robotics, 30 (13):825-845, 2016/07/02 2016.
  2. Moju Zhao, Koji Kawasaki, Xiangyu Chen, Shintaro Noda, Kei Okada, and Masayuki Inaba, Whole-body Aerial Manipulation by Transformable Multirotor with Two-dimensional Multilinks, in 2017 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA). 2017: Singapore.


Robot Wednesday

Natural Selection of Glider Drone Concepts

Evan Ackerman reports about yet another “disposable drone” project, similar to the ‘cardboard drone’ concept from OterhLabs. Great minds move in similar ways, and the U.S. Marines are testing the same concept only larger: plywood gliders. I’m sure there are other variations on this theme in the works, it is an idea whose time has come.

The Marine version (TACAD (TACtical Air Delivery)) is plywood and bolts, plus GPS and guidance. The glider is intended to be launched from an aircraft to glide many kilometers to the recipient. Crash landing within fifty meters or so, the airframe will be discarded.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

One reason that the time has come for this idea is that civilian, hobbyist-grade GPS and small aircraft controllers are widely available and cheap. In a sort of technological “circle of life”, these military technologies moved out to wide use, and developed to the point where they can work as well as special orders, and are, of course, vastly cheaper. They are now being picked up by the military, replacing custom built systems.

Using inexpensive materials is particularly important for unpowered gliders because they cannot fly home. For that matter, they have limited maneuverability, and relatively high probability of mishap. Pushing the cost down makes it a “throw away” craft, worth risking in more situations.

Between the TACAD and Otherlab, we can see that there is a certain evolutionary selection process going on there. The same underlying technology (GPS, digital guidance, stand off air launch) can be realized at a variety of scales. The USMC is planning one with a payload about the size of a microwave, OterhLab’s is smaller. We could imagine both larger and smaller versions, using appropriate materials.

There is a tradeoff here; the smaller the drone, they more of them that can be deployed. Otherlab’s cardboard packages could be dropped by the hundreds, The same aircraft could drop far fewer TACAD sized craft. Depending on the type of delivery, either mode might be better.

There are other tradeoffs related to the size. The OthereLabs is designed to be delivered as a compact flatpack, and also to biodegrade after landing. I imagine that TACAD might be flatpacked, but the initial design has foldable wings for up for compact transport. Flatpack design also enables a sort of just in time, on site construction that may be advantageous for some uses. For example, the plans could be delivered electronically, and constructed from local materials.

This evolutionary radiation of disposable drone gliders is an interesting reprise of military glider technology. At its peak, gliders were widely used for paratroops (for example, the movie “A Bridge Too Far” has some excellent recreations of allied glider operations). Dangerous, defenseless, and limited, gliders were surpassed by other aircraft, especially helicopters. Decades later, the concept of a cargo glider has returned, made possibly by model air crate technology.

  1. Evan Ackerman, U.S. Marines Testing Disposable Delivery Drones, in IEEE Spectrum – Automation. 2017.


Robot Wednesday Friday

Cool Drone Magic From Marco Tempest

We techies, we all want to build stuff that is magical. Most of us have little clue what that entails. This is why I have enjoyed working with musicians and other performing artists (e.g., [1]), who understand wonder and magic, not to mention human perception and movement.

These days, there is a vast and growing interest in human-robot interaction, self-driving cars, drones, and so on.  Much of this work is not magical in the least. Usually, this is because brilliant engineers are not really brilliant imagineers.

Fortunately, drones are now cheap and easy enough that they are getting in the hands of cops, artists and teenagers—and thus are entering out culture.  In my view, one glorious circus performance is more significant that a thousand delivery drone concepts.

Of course, if the goal is to create magic, then we really should collaborate with, well, magicians.

Along this line, illusionist Marco Tempest has released some cool videos, demonstrating amazing multi-UAV behavior, apparently under gesture and/or voice command. Actually, I’m not really sure how it all works—the very definition of magic, no?

The video is awesome, but just as interesting, he articulates the principles that make these little buzzing light bulbs seem alive, intelligent, and communicating with him.

The algorithms that enable the UAVs to fly in close, coordinated swarm that reacts to him are:

“mathematics that can be mistaken for intelligence, and intelligence for personality.”

What a lovely phrase!

If the whole idea of social robots is to make people perceive the artificial intelligence as a friendly agent, then the game is really about creating anthropomorphism, which is

an illusion created by technology and embroidered by our imagination to become an intelligent flying robot, a machine that appears to be alive.

From this point of view, all that rigamarole about big data and vast computational power is kind of off-target. The target is to create the illusion of intelligence—in the mind of the human observer.

This illusion works through the same principle that most magic tricks work:

Our imagination is more powerful than our reasoning and it’s easy to attribute personality to machines.

Another marvelous phrase!

Really cool! When can I buy a suitcase full of these intelligent drones??

By the way, this is one of the most compelling “gestural” interfaces I’ve seen.  No phone.  No goggles.  No joy stick.  Just body and hands. So, so, slick!

By the way, I would add one more little trick that would deepen the illusion:  the drones should have individual names, and should respond to their name.  I would predict that once we have applied a personal name to each flyer, we will soon perceive individual differences among them, even if they are actually programmed identically.  (Though, it would be cool to have each be programmed different.)

  1. Mary Pietrowicz, Robert E. McGrath, Guy Garnett, and John Toenjes, Multimodal Gestural Interaction in Performance, in Whole Body Interfaces Workshop at CHI 2010. 2010: Atlanta.
  2. Marco Tempest. Work. 2017,


Dual Drone Coordination

One of the challenges for robots in general and UAV’s in particular is how to coordinate multiple bots.  It’s hard enough to make one do what you want, how can we make more than one work together. Whether the goal is “autonomous” on board direction or external remote control, it’s not easy to keep together and not bump each other.

Some of the wizards of Zurich have yet another idea, using visual tracking [1].  (I guess we should call the usual suspects, because so much important robotics is coming from .ch.)

The stated use case is there GPS is not available, and you want to carry a payload with a team of quad copters. As they point out, there are many reasons you might want to do this, more lifting power, better ability to maneuver the payload, etc.

Their solution is a simple leader/follower scheme, with one drone setting the course, and the second keeping station behind. The video makes this very clear.

The hard part, of course, is how to follow.

Their trick is to use visual tracking, and simple algorithms to keep the leader in view.

(In the demo, they use a black and white pattern as the target, which looks like old Augmented Reality targets. That’s a blast from the past!)


  1. Michael Gassner, Titus Cieslewski, and Davide Scaramuzza, Dynamic Collaboration without Communication: Vision-Based Cable-Suspended Load Transport with Two Quadrotors (to appear), in IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation. 2017: Singapore.


Robot Wednesday